Bridging Public Trust

Michael Onsando
3 September ,2019

“Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.”

Give us your data – or else

Last week I wrote about public trust – especially in relation to the census process. Aside from voting this is perhaps one of the times that public participation is most needed in a governmental process. While they may be comfortable passing all kinds of laws without even considering the public’s view, the census process demands that they go to the citizen and ask that they share their data.

Which is probably why the rift between the citizenry and the government was most apparent in this time.

Nation building is a dance of sorts. It is impossible for the state to move forward with their plans without some form of permission, or at least complacence, from the citizenry. And, because of the scale of the project, it is impossible for it to be run like a campus group assignment. There must be some order, some selected representatives who are trusted to carry their people’s message for dialogue to occur on a national level, aligning goals, dreams and aspirations. Even further, nations must align regionally depending on the state of the global politic to create a block of nations strong enough to bargain from a position of strength.

The trust in the system is implicit when it is drawn out theoretically. It is easy to say that the citizens, of course, trust the state that they have placed in power. And that the national dialogue will happen from a position of “messenger” bringing the message of their people to other peoples and negotiating for the greater good. And even further, that negotiations between states will happen from a similarly noble place.

When we look at the situation practically, a whole other set of facts comes to light.

“While a majority of politicians from across the country have insisted that the headcount meets the minimum threshold of credibility, it is feared that some figures could have been cooked. In the 2009 census, a dispute arose but the figures were upheld by the courts (…)The 2009 controversy now casts a long shadow over the 2019 census in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. State officials in the region have been accused of facilitating irregularities by inflating household numbers in their areas of jurisdiction”

There’s not a single large project in the country that moves through the entire process without being marred by a scandal or a possible scandal. The new curriculum is currently under fire for being hastily implemented and not being thoroughly thought out. No one even knows why we built the SGR and the big oil that was supposed to save us is actually churning out a measly 2000 barrels a day with estimates expecting up to 100,000 barrels per day (for comparison, Nigeria exports about 2,200,000 barrels of oil a day).

It’s not all gloom and doom. The new roads are a joy to drive on (despite what they are doing to our debt) and our GDP seems to be steadily on the rise. We have new currencies, driving licenses and passports – so one could say our swag factor has gone up by X to the power of n. 

The media (us guys) are not making it easier in the trust game either. Incetivised by clicks and sales we know the easiest way to get a story circulating to a wider audience is to sensationalise it. To speak using stronger language and to avoid looking at the nuance in the conversation. As such every issue is set up as the government vs the people. The people v the power (I am reminded that binaries are unwinnable).

“Can’t win if it’s me against me, one of us ain’t gonna survive”

  • Lupe fiasco, Beautiful lasers

And so we continue trapped in this cycle. The people eye-ing the state, the state eye-ing the people and money, ideas and progress falling in the cracks. Last week I wrote about the tone the government uses with the citizens, the utafanya ama utafanya  tone that is alienating rather than brining together. Still, in this time of tough talk, how do we bridge the gap? How do we get everybody on board towards believing that this space can work for all of us?

Give us your data – or else

Michael Onsando
27 August ,2019

If you’ve watched any Iron Man/ Avengers movie then you are well versed with Jarvis, Tony stark’s trusty number two computer who responds to Tony’s voice, works side by side with him and even has a few jokes up it’s sleeve. If you aren’t then you surely know about the future as imagined as a place with responsive machines and AI amped up to the power of n.

It’s slightly disappointing to leave the cinema and walk into a Kenyan court where the judge is still writing down witness testimonies by hand – asking them to slow down to the pace of their longhand.

The thing is, the gap between here and there is mainly data. Computers work on programming, they need to be taught how to read patterns, how to understand what these patterns mean and how to derive solutions from data. It follows that the only way for machines to get to the future is for the amount of data made available to them to increase.

It is in these crosshairs that the world is currently poised. Who is in charge of this data? What happens with it when we give it? Can it be leveraged against us? There is no time in the history of humanity that the sensitivity of data has been more publicly and openly discussed than the modern era. With your phone mics asking for permission to listen in to your conversations, every app asking for a “few details about you” and huduma number needing to know how many times you brush your teeth daily, we’re sensitive about who we give our data and what they do with it.

It is with this sensitivity towards data that the census process was met. A process that I was doubtful would happen given the time and effort put behind the Huduma Number process and the amount of data that was asking for. But, on Saturday 24th August we were shepherded away from the bars and into our homes so we could answer a question “where did you spend the night on the evening of August 24?” And then asked for a little more data for state purposes.

“Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.”

– Wachira Maina, State Capture: Why Kenya has been unable to slay the corruption dragon

When Wachira speaks of state capture in Kenya, he doesn’t speak of anything that we don’t know already. We know that Kenya is run by both the government and the “shadow government” that has access to everything that is the government. We know because we see the effects of it. We see the misappropriation of public funds and we wonder – what’s going to happen to this too?

“That CS miscommunicated this thing completely. The @KNBStats

 team that came was very helpful and very professional. And there was no compulsory question.

There was no need at all for the threats and big volume. That stuff has antagonised people for no reason at all.”

“If you have caught one of his many tirades then, like me, you have probably thought one of either two things: (1) “Bah, we’ve arrived yet again at that precarious intersection of capitalism, the consumer and the state.” Or (2) “I’m not sure I like your tone, public servant.”

Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.

“Explain to Kenyans what you are doing, we are not children”

Johnson Sakaja

And maybe rather than issuing threats at that big volume this is the work that the government should be focusing on. Building public trust and finding a way to start working in tandem with the Kenyan people rather than working at loggerheads with us. To start from understanding why the lack of public trust exists and communicating from a standpoint that understands this. So far it seems like the government is not particularly concerned in creating a situation where the citizens are ever on its side. Rather citizens are dragged along as unwilling participants on whichever initiative the government decides is valid

This idea of the authoritarian state, perhaps, is why data in particular is so sensitive. Because we’ve seen how China has decided to use their data – creating a   black miroresque social surveillance system that ranks citizens as per their social credit. So it makes sense that Kenyans would be jumpy around sharing their personal data and maybe then our government should be asking itself how do we make this better? Or maybe even that might be asking for a thought too far.

Down River Road

Michael Onsando
20 August ,2019

Down River Road

“Going down river road you can find yourself anywhere.”

  • Clifton Gachagua

No, this is not a book review of Meja Mwangi’s classic. But, as I find out on a Umoja rooftop one cold evening, there is something classic about it.  The brainchild of Clifton Gachagua and Franklin Sunday as Kavochy and DRR welcome us to choma, readings, music and drinks.

The premise is simple, Franklin reveals to me a few weeks earlier over as we sit on a different rooftop, Pawa 254, in a more affluent area of town. The question he asks is simple “what happens when we move these spaces closer to the people?” Perhaps this is why the name Down River Road is so enticing. Because if there is somewhere you will find “the people” it is on riverroad. You will find them selling wares on the streets, looking for buses to go home, looking for buses to go to their homes (and there is a difference). Walking down river road you will feel the bump of shoulders, the smell of labour and the taste of cigarette smoke.

Which is why the deliberate thinking around the recently launched Down River Road journal is so important. And, perhaps why their call for papers for their first issue is interesting. Take this from their about page:

“Place has always been difficult in two ways. Firstly, the subjective spaces we exist in, the product of the senses. Then: the imaginary places. Often we inhabit both places at the same time, creating varied possibilities and realms as we claim our existence in each reality. Place is always changing, moving, even when our bodies remain static. And when our bodies do finally move, place moves with us. In these new places we create homes for ourselves because our survival depends on it.”

And as places move and change, we move and change with them. Like listening s Kamwangi Njue play tunes that fill the chilly evening with warmth. Or  hearing Ndinda Kioko read about lovers and being close enough to touch them. When the setting is made properly a place can turn into any place. And any place can be found as long as you get on the right bus and alight at the right stage. 

Down river road promises to be the bus for the people who are looking to get a taste of arts and literature that is born of the people – of art that occurs rather than is occurred. Like reading about Sir Owi’s rise in the ranks of the music industry or letting M K Angwenyi take you to places where you can no longer see.

And they are open for submissions.

The journal is looking for submissions for its debut issue themes on ‘place’ with the submission deadline being 1st October 2019. They are looking for:

“…work ranging from poetry to (non)fiction between 3500 – 5000 words. We’ll accept 3-5 poems maximum of 40 lines each. Flash fiction pieces should be between 500 – 1000 words. We also welcome other experimental forms (mathogothanio) and medium including interviews and conversations, maps, photography, illustrations, video and audio.”

So join in. Take a walk down river road and share where you end up – it could be anywhere.

Viva la Capitalism!

Michael Onsando
13 August ,2019

“mkono inahonga imevaa bracelet inacolours za flag”

Besides all the other necessary things that this long and beautiful piece of writing contains it particularly has me thinking about rhetoric as a key. How language as a kind of shibboleth into spaces. With our words we signal to each other – I see you, I side with you, I understand you, I disagree with you. Perhaps this is why lying and manipulation are a large part of our fears. That we will realize someone had learned enough about our language to use it to navigate our emotions, hiding in the blindspots and never revealing themselves.

The problem, of course is that acceptance is at the core of the human. We are social beings. And not everyone has a healthy attitude towards confrontation. In order to be vulnerable and honest we must always be ready to lose everything – especially with the proliferation of cancel culture. As jools puts it, consensus becomes king. It becomes more important to agree with the larger whole than to express an original or dissenting thought.

Scrolling myself to sleep one night, I saw a tweet that I will loosely paraphrase (because google has refused to reveal its secrets to me). It was something along the lines that most of our current crises are born of the fact that a lot of our rules were created by people who died a long time ago, for their own context and we’re only now realizing that we can change them.

Which is why this (same) piece has me thinking about the rhetoric we have been programmed to accept and whether we have examined the changing paradigms around them. Take this excerpt:

“Those 60s-70s firebrands were born at a time when the CPUSA had 80,000 members, and even within the Democratic Party it was possible to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. McCarthyism did much to smash this, but the contemporary existence of attempts (however imperfect) by the dispossessed to wrest control of their destinies, particularly in China and the Third World, proved an irresistible inspiration. Since then the left has had to contend with the destruction or reversal of these attempts, and a vigorous retrenchment of the power of capital. The “establishment left” in the United States is basically limited to the unions now, who are almost universally in thrall to the Democratic Party.

We also live in very different times economically. In many Western countries, the 1970s were the peak of both the average standard of living and income equality. Today we face a crisis of capitalism on the scale of the Great Depression – and that crisis only ended with the Second World War’s bonfire of value.”

And this seems to be a real problem. Instead of solutions arising out of our current problem state and working towards an end goal it seems like we are fitting our current problems into old rhetoric of “change” and hoping that it will give us the solutions that we need for what is facing us now. I imagine we cling to old rhetoric because it’s safe and because we are lazy. The pursuit of capital has us focused on doing “what we need to do” in order to get ahead. I imagine there’s also something in there about the shape and face of a revolutionary. The need to be like Malcolm X or Che Guevara with thousands of people marching down the street behind us. The need to be great as greatness has been described to us, rather than the drive to make actual tangible change in the world around us, regardless of whether greatness comes as part of the package or not.

Another excerpt:

“Herein lies my problem with what were essentially soup kitchens that Occupy sites the world over set up: feeding the homeless is a laudable aim, but you are not seizing your chance properly here if you’re just happy with that. The free breakfast program set up by the Black Panthers was not at all just because children in the ghetto were going hungry – it also included a comprehensive program of political education, it was based on the principle that militancy and resistance is much easier if you aren’t hungry, and it also massively increased the passive support they received from a neighbourhood’s population.”

This is why I’m increasingly wary of revolutions, especially self-titled ones. Because a revolution is only called so deep into its happening and measured by impact. Till then here are only plans to create change and how these plans are implemented over time. And these plans must be grounded in a common cause i.e what are we trying to achieve and does this thing that we are currently doing align itself to said goal? Nowadays it seems like the main thing being achieved is acknowledgement of one’s contribution in a race to being the next icon, the next revolutionary person. And so we ask, what must I say, what must I do in order to be perceived in this way that I can leverage my image?

How can I make my way into the halls of history?

Capitalism, of course, encourages this pursuit of greatness. It is the very stuff that capitalism is founded upon, how to do you leverage the shadows to create an untouchable image? And the internet, with its unforgiveable memory insists that we maintain a perfect online persona, align ourselves to the right arguments on twitter, post the right images and such. It gives us a detailed guide of rhetoric – speak to this group like this, acknowledge this, refuse this. In this way we end up regurgitating rather than understanding and because to question is to accept that maybe we might not agree or understand (and might not be received well) we continue to follow and impose these rules upon others.

Last excerpt:

“In fact, I would go so far as to say that history has been rewritten and this idea of a single New Left is an invention. Two concurrent but separate movements for liberation (one primarily racial/economic, and the other primarily sexual/narcotic) have been conflated for various reasons, such as the primarily rhetorical support they lent each other. This cleavage still exists today, although modulated by the changes in conditions between now and then.”

And so we have long complicated posts on the nature of intersectionality and feministing and other 3 or more syllable words reconstructing the same class barriers that they are speaking against. Where the barrier of entry remains an education that has taught you to navigate this rhetoric. Where instead of seeing people we see ideological loopholes and flaws in thinking with little compassion and then wonder why we can’t create a shareable universe.

Because the vision itself is not shared.

Like arguing with a christian set on converting you, it is not a two sided conversation. Rather it becomes a class condescension that is quick to categorise and place one’s problems in these “oppression boxes” instead of listen to see what solutions may present themselves – if any. And because the solutions themselves are often messy. It’s often more complicated than a twitter thread. It’s often more complicated than “that’s white people” or “that’s men” (binaries are unwinnable) and to admit that punctures a hole in our savior mentality. If problems are complicated, nuanced and call for analysis then we can’t just fix the world. We can’t just save everyone. And if this if so then we might need to do actual labour, actual political uncovering, discovering and organizing – ugh.

Do we like the new look?

Michael Onsando
30 July ,2019
How does it feel to hold though?

“Not all images are meant to be looked at. Some, like those on banknotes, are only meant to be seen.”

The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant, Wambui Mwangi.

In this paper Wambui Mwangi analyses the politics associated with currency design in Kenya. The paper goes into how currency design is basically an extrapolation of the self-imagination of the dominant class of society.  With this in mind I’ve been looking at the year we’ve had and the changing face of the country, what it means like and what it means.

But let’s begin.

This year has seen a flurry of changes in the country we’ve seen people line up for Huduma nambas and passports. Late last year the new generation driving license was brought into play. With buildings coming up faster than Jay Z in the late 90s and a large number of roads paved with caterpillars one can’t help but think the country finally break out of it’s cocoon and butterfly into the future.

I’m talking about aesthetics here and the effect that they have on the general psyche of a people. Which is to say let’s forget that our CS for Treasury has been caught up in a large grand heist scandal recently. Or, that we recently took another Eurobond to pay for our previous Eurobond (talk about borrowing from Tala to pay Branch).

Instead I’m trying to think about the things, as Dr Mwangi talks about, that are not looked at but seen. The things that we experience without really looking into. Like driving on a new road while knowing deep in your heart that it’s your generation that will bear the burden of the debt that went into developing it. Like holding the crisp new currency notes (monopoly money ama?) and holding back the feeling that maybe this means something.

“The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?”

Something is happening

Is change coming?

How one feels about their nation is primarily based on their experiences within the country and the experiences of those around them. If Kenya has been good to you and yours then odds are you sing that Eric Wainaina song at the top of your lungs with a phone in the air. If you are somewhere on the margins uncentered and unimagined by the nation you are expected to give everything to then it’s likely that you are dancing to Sarabi juu umechoka kuchoka. And, of course, it depends on the time of month you are turning on the radio.

With this in mind, I’m wondering how the changing images of our country are affecting our perception of the space and of ourselves as a people.

I only ask because it seems that the strategy undertaken by this government is to borrow heavily and hope that it opens up avenue for business that will increase the output of the country and raise our income to meet obligations that we currently cannot. And we know from every book on corporate leadership ever written, that a happy and fulfilled employee is more likely to give the company their best work. They will put in longer hours and they  are more likely to see the company’s success as their own. And, in being forced to bear this burden, we are the labourers that carry the cost. Increasingly I find it important to ask – are we happy with the changes being made? Do we believe that they are good changes in the larger picture? Has the experience of being a Kenyan got better or worse with the changing faces of a nation?

This is an actual question. Tell us in the comments,  in our inbox or on email How do you feel about new Kenya?

The beatings will continue until morale improves

Michael Onsando
23 July ,2019

“There’s no honour in being a plumber, the honour is in going to university. To go to university to do what?”

I’m not sure I know how to feel about his smartyness professor Magoha. Having been in University of Nairobi during the Babu Owino years there’s enough whispered about how he handled the university money for me to keep him at arms distance – or maybe even further.

That being said, when this video came across my timeline it threw me into a spiral of education googling. This, of course has been a centre of conversation with the new syllabus implemented, stopped, implemented and ultimately leading to a point where Grade 3 students may or may not be sitting for an exam in September.

That 8-4-4 has an overemphasis on a certain type of knowledge and has led to a devaluing of more technical and practical oriented subjects is not necessarily a new thought. And this focus not only has an effect on how people are educated but on what kind of people we create in society. It affects their biases and ambitions. Take this from Laila Le Guen:

“This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society?”

The Blindspots of a Stem Focused Education Reform

Which is what makes this such a critical time in many ways. An education system, once set in place, is almost impossible to alter and it carries with itself the implicit biases. Biases that then continue to live on as psychological scars, unemployment or just that nagging question at the back of a child’s mind – “is something wrong with me?”

On the necessity of parental involvement, Wandia Njoya writes:

“It’s one thing for prejudice to be written into policies, and it’s yet another for public officials to be so unaware of it. But the most tragic part of this story is that some middle class Kenyan parents have dismissed the ramifications of this parental involvement, thanks to the effective mainstreaming of capitalist, racist and evangelical attitudes towards the family. The most common rebuttal to our concerns has been parents expressing how much fun they are having with their children.”

Of course the bias in the new system is not only when it comes to the classist trappings of having your parents at school every second of the day. The system has been criticized as being too expensive (another classist trapping?), not just for the schools but for parents, teachers and administrators. There is little said about where the money will come from (and it’s not like Kenya is balling out of control). Also, the 13-14 subject lower secondary segment has been questioned  as maybe being too heavy for the young mind. On the positive though, the system seems to make more room for a wider range of academic orientation.

“A country that is at war with its young people is a country that has no future.”

Johnson Sakaja

What’s ironic is that while the effort to redignify is at the core of these reforms the tone that has been taken with the rest of the country is not one directed at a dignified people. CS Magoha has been heard threatening teachers opposing the new system, going as far as saying he will crush the new system’s opponents.

Crush? Are these crushed teachers then to go on and be the ones to implement this education system? And is shoving this new system down their mouths with no option for feedback really the way to go? For all the flowery language in sessional paper number 1 – how much have the teacher’s been heard in this process? Ever since Mr Matiang’i came with this “let’s pound this policy into submission” leadership style that seems to be the way we want to go. But what becomes the difference between this system and any other if it isn’t implemented in a way that allows for all stakeholders to participate, come on board and for their concerns to be heard? If we are really doing the work of restoring dignity to careers that had lost them – wouldn’t it start by listening?

Or would we rather call people fools on TV and hope for the best? After all, it’s only the future at stake.

Ergo, Ego: On the Division of Revenue Bill

Michael Onsando
16 July ,2019

“So please restrict yourselves to the functions that have been allocated to the county. And they are here. When we read them, you think we are demeaning you, but it is not us. It is the people of Kenya who gave you these roles like animal control and welfare, licensing of dogs and facilities for the accommodation, care and burial of animals.”

Of course the County Government does more than bury pets. And it would be unwise to let a little political banter (no matter how brutal) get us all twisted. But it is definitely worth looking into an issue that might have the country at a stand still if it isn’t resolved – The Division of Revenue Bill.

The problem began when President Uhuru signed the Appropriation Act 2019 before the stalemate of the Division of Revenue Bill was solved. A stalemate that has turned to the Supreme Court to be resolved, as the rest of the country wonders how much more of the 2019/2020 financial year will move with county governments unable to pay for drugs, water, electricity and development projects.

But why did Ras one sign the bill despite so much contention around the country?

First, the bill was signed late June, meaning that the president probably waited till the last minute to sign. It would also help to remember that many counties still misappropriate funds (remember Waititu’s peace keeping in South Sudan funding?). Also that a lot of money goes back to the government at the end of the financial year, although this might be chalked up to the complications in the exchequer process. So it makes sense that there have been some questions raised as to the amount of money that the Senators proposed for the counties.

On the other hand, that this issue is holding up services is also a bit absurd. The initial proposal by the Commission of Revenue Allocation was for KES 335 Billion before the National Assembly slashed it to KES 310 Billion – a difference of about KES 25 Billion. Which averages at about 530 million per county (it’s unlikely that the money will be divided equally but yeah). Which is what makes it absurd because Nairobi county has over a billion shillings allocated for “General Administrative Services.” And this isn’t even to challenge the necessity of that expense. Rather I want to ask – are we going to grind everything to a halt because of an amount of money that is half of the administrative services? Is this work by the National Assembly really tantamount to an “onslaught on devolution” as claimed by Wycliffe Oparanya, Chairman of the council of governors?  Take this from his statement issued yesterday:

“In this second term, devolved governance is being attacked by denying County Governments their much needed resources. The National Treasury continues to hold counties hostage by always deviating from the Commission on Revenue Allocation (CRA) recommendations and by constantly delaying disbusrsement of funds to counties”

I’m not going to go into delaying of funds. I’ve heard the rumours about the exchequer process being more complicated than a rube goldberg machine. But is this, strictly speaking, true? Sure, the CRA has recommendations but isn’t parliamentary oversight the reason that they are recommendations and not laws?

Are the CRA’s recommendations meant to be accepted without question or challenge?

Budgeting seems to be an extremely practical question. Moving money from here affects there and moving money from there affects somewhere else – and it’s not like the country has been doing fantastically anyway with Henry Rotich’s latest budget talk showing that about 61% of the country’s 2019-2020 budget going to servicing debt

So why are we being held hostage by this clash of egos? And we know it is a clash of egos because when it comes to discussing it we delve into trivialities like burying pets and licensing of dogs. Meanwhile two weeks have gone in the financial year and work is yet to begin officially. 

“There is a problem. A big one for that matter. It can only be solved when people sober up” Kwame Owino, Director, Institute of Economic Affairs

The National Assembly says it must be KES 310 Billion. The Counties move to 327 – is it that difference worth pulling the brakes on the county machinery? Is this ego contest worth the delay?

Ethics and Perspectives

Michael Onsando
9 July ,2019

“And I’m the asshole in the room?”

Miles Ahead, a movie on the life and times of Miles Davis, opens up on a moody Miles Davis locked up in his house, listening to session tapes and nostalgic on what is described as past glory. It is 1964, five years after Miles release “So what,” that took the world by storm. When a writer claiming to be sent from the studio comes to write about his “comeback” Miles flips. He drives all the way to Columbia records to demand his pay where he pulls a gun on an overzealous Artists and Repertoire executive who claims to own his music. As he pulls the gun he also ends up unwravelling the web of perception around him where the records are holding his money, the writer isn’t from the records and a young producer is trying to use the moment to give his own artist space to shine. Finally having his fill he leaves with the line “And I’m the asshole in the room?”

I go back to this scene every time I find myself coming up against a wall of perception (whether the wall is from me looking out or outside looking in). Anyone walking into the room would see a man with a gun. Instead the story unravels to show a man tired of dealing with layers of deception, trying to find the truth (and struggling with drugs)

“Honestly, ethic mayne – ni nini mbaya na nyinyi?”

I’m always worried about what it means when we decide that one side of a narrative must be correct. That certain people acting must be perceived as acting in a certain way, and that their violence is always viewed through a lens of of erratic, without reason or just plain ghetto. And how these assumptions create the worlds where we exist.  

I wonder, for example, how quickly the guilty verdict was arrived at. The question asked was not “what’s happening here?” “what has happened?” “why are you behaving like this?” Implicit within the question was the fact that assumptions made were not about the issue in question. Rather, “nini mbaya na nyinyi?” implies that there is a consistent wrongness. Not that this action is seen as wrong but rather this action is seen as a pattern of wrongness that is inherent within the question. In asking nini mbaya na nyinyi we are immediately drawn into a certain framing of the issue. The framing that shows Ethic as a group of rowdy young men out for trouble and directly implies them as on the wrong in this particular situation.

I wonder (some more) if the reaction would have been as loud, as blatant and as publicly shaming if it had been any other group or individual at the centre of the trouble. For sure, the issue would have been handled (violently even, it was, after all, a violent moment) but would the concert have been shut down? Would the MC’s voice blare over the speakers at the whole stadium about the problem? Would the DJ have hidden their computer?

Or would there have been some “technical difficulties” as everything was sorted out?

“But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?”

– Boogieman, Gambino

I’ve been trying to write this piece without falling in defense of anyone – I’m not privy to what happened. As such, there are words and places I refuse to go because the aim of this piece is not to level accusations or defend actions. I’m trying, instead, to talk about how we deal with what we see and whether we question why and how we are responding to things the way we are. Because if not aren’t we just going around projecting our fears onto the world? And if we are creating a world shaped by our fear then are we doing the work?

Twisted fates: On the Complications of Legacy

Michael Onsando
2 July ,2019

It’s interesting watching the TL today discuss Bob Collymore’s death. There’s the side mourning him because he was a pretty affable fellow and the side who feel that death shouldn’t shield him from his actions including his role in rigged elections, national CCTV fiasco etc

It’s in the murk of death that things come to light. Somewhere in the aftermath of demise people either gain the courage or realize they have no more time left to say what they wanted to say – to do what they wanted to do. Like the way we hold our breath at the funerals of business tycoons waiting for the second wife to show up with her family. When someone dies we know that the unexpected is on the way – especially when the person has a public profile.

On 1st November 2010 Bob Collymore took over as the CEO of Safaricom. He came in to run the ship in a company where Michael Joseph had made the position of Safaricom CEO a rock star position in the public persona. Somewhere amidst the launching of M-pesa and their IPO, Safaricom had won over the hearts of Kenyans. Millions of us were holding on to the stock that had started off at 5 shillings. In many ways, Safaricom had already become the company that is almost synonymous with Kenya. It is this ship that Bob was given to steer.

And the former Vodafone Chief Officer of Corporate Affairs did not skip a beat. From music videos with Jimmy Gait to Blaze to Capture Kenya the man was on a charm offensive with a country, seeking to woo the nation – an offensive that worked so well that 9 years later the man earned an appointment to the board of the National Cancer Institute.

On July 1 2019 he died.

There’s no ignoring the hero/villain dichotomy that exists – especially when it comes to here. Here where it takes amplifying the worst of oneself to make it to the top we know to be wary of those who have succeeded – the same could be said of Bob Collymore. Already the accusations are flying hard and fast and all we are waiting for is the proverbial baby at the funeral.

And this is where I want to play.

Because I’m not sure if I have much more to say about that. I met the man once or twice but not sure I had enough information to tell you what kind of person he is – and I’ve recently grown wary of judging people based off what makes it through the well of whispers.

“Legacy, legacy, legacy, legacy

Black excellence, you gon’ let ’em see”

  • Jay Z, Legacy

Rather, I’m interested in the things that we leave behind. And whether they take the shape that we think they’d take – that we hoped they’d take. Following Binyavanga Wainaina’s death social media was awash with noise attacking his life, and then there was the noise defending him. Somehow in the moment we seemed to be reduced to binaries Binyavanga was a gay man, hence he was a bad man. Bob was a wealthy man, hence he was a good man. Bob was running Safaricon as the CCTV scandal happened; hence he was a bad man.

Somehow stories do no labour towards showing us the sides of the human, instead they are carefully picked out to show what the teller is trying to demonstrate.

And this makes sense because the court of public opinion needs heroes and villains. It needs people to be held to absolutes so that we can take stances. It needs personalities to be flattened and journeys be judged based on decision points that the public has no information about. In Binya’s case we see heavy othering as society retreats to the safe place of tried and tested homophobia. And then we see heavy romanticizing in the “genius nationalist” In Bob’s case we see the same dichotomy. Bob the hero who knew half of twitter by name and showed up in music videos and Bob the villain who headed one of the largest monopolies in the country (And, possibly the region?).

Legacy is complicated and its pursuit has been known to bend and break even the strongest of us. When you’ve been pursuing legacy it’s easy to ignore the needs of the few for the larger picture. And, as Thanos showed us, sometimes the larger picture doesn’t justify the immediate action.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll eventually realize that there are no heroes and villains only good ideas, bad ideas and willpower. Till then, I leave you with Anyidoho:

And when it is all over

we shall once more inherit

a generation of cracked souls

for whom we must erect new

monuments and compose new

anthems of praise and the eternal hope of life

beyond the recurring stupidity of war heroes.

To African Excellence and Beyond

Michael Onsando
25 June ,2019

And when the time comes,

as all times do,

may we remember

that the power

came from within.

Africa’s Sun

Tetu Shani’s Africa Sun is nothing short of brilliant. A testament to African excellence through ambition and hard work, the energy he creates is electrifying. A jam, a bop, a something to play in your headphones all the way on loud as you head to do something challenging.

And that’s about all there is to say about this.

But there’s some more to say about some other things. Like how while we do the work of complaining about how badly the country is torn there is a generation of labourers dedicated to making it better. Like how the future, when it finally arrives will be populated by scores of people who tried and tried again to bring it closer so that the rest of us can see that it is beautiful.

Please don’t jealous me

  • Tetu Shani, Africa’s Sun

If you put one crab in a bucket, it can claw its way up and out – return to the wild and be free. But the circumstances change when you put a bunch of the things in a bucket. If one of them tries to climb out the rest pull it back into the bucket. What’s more, if the crab tried to climb out a second time the other crabs will gang up on the poor liberator once more and could even try to break its claws to completely hinder the process. In effect, none of the crabs end up escaping the bucket, which is great for lunch.

Not so great for the crab that chose freedom.

I keep wondering about what would happen if the crabs turned that destructive power into collaborative effort. If it would be possible for them to create a chain,  for example, and effectively get every crab out. It’s difficult to imagine the things that crabs have to overcome before they can see their fellow crab as a friend not a foe.

Kenyans are not crabs.

And I’m always wary about the things that perceive as holding us back. Is it deliberately holding up because it causes us to pause to consider? Is it deliberately holding us back if it forces us to do more in our craft? Is it holding us back if it forces us to consider the needs of our audience or if it allows our audience to express their relation to the work – even if it isn’t a linear (good or bad) relationship?

I decided Imma be me

Same when you see me,

Beard and a beanie

Kwani iko nini?

Kwani iko nini?

Blinky Bill, Kwani iko nini?

But we can be crabs. When we come up against something that is growing in ways we don’t understand we cut it down, we try to stop it, to shepherd it into the spaces we understand. Rather than expand ourselves into the space created by this new thing we insist that this thing become smaller. That it fits itself into our own ways of seeing the world rather than engage with how it is moving through the space.

But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?

I imagine that before the crabs can gain a collaborative mentality one crab would have to convince another. And the two would need to gather a third and so on and so forth until all crabs were on board. And I would like to imagine the convincing would go beyond showing the skeptical crab the logic of the plan. I imagine it would have something to do with building belief, building trust, building hope and eliminating fear. And that in order to do these things it would begin by studying the bucket, the human hand and other crabs, by having intimate knowledge of the circumstance and how to navigate it (or at least an idea). So if (and when) this labour is done and the time comes that the crabs are free and roaming the wild, I wonder if there will be space to remember that it all happened because one crab believed.